Study: Mediterranean Diet Can Greatly Reduce Risk Of Heart Attack, Stroke

There's a rare bit of good news for debt crisis ridden Spain, Italy and Greece. A new study finds that 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and heart disease can be prevented in high risk people if they switch to a Mediterranean diet that includes olive oil, nuts, fish, fruit and vegetables.

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We end this hour in Spain, which may be suffering economically, but it's doing something right at the dinner table. A study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine provides new evidence about the Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, nuts, and yes, even wine. The diet was found to dramatically reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Lauren Frayer tells us more from Spain.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Jose Luis Garcia(ph) has a close-up daily look at the Mediterranean diet. He's a waiter at a tapas bar here in Madrid where he's used to drizzling olive oil over dishes day and night.

JOSE LUIS GARCIA: (Speaking foreign language)

FRAYER: Eighty percent of my customers eat a loaf of bread with olive oil, almost everyone, every morning, he says. Good olive oil, none of this sunflower oil or other stuff. His father died of a heart attack, which puts Garcia in a high-risk category. He says he's not giving up his olive oil, though, and a new study says he shouldn't. Findings published today in the New England Journal of Medicine show a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil and nuts could prevent 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths in people with a high risk of heart disease.

RACHEL JOHNSON: This study is a randomized, controlled clinical trial, which is the gold standard of research design. It's a very strong study.

FRAYER: Rachel Johnson is a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. She says the study looked at about 7500 Spaniards who are overweight, smokers or suffer from diabetes, all high-risk factors.

JOHNSON: People that are high risk of cardiovascular disease when they were provided with either extra virgin olive oil or nuts, it actually lowered their risk of disease. The outcome they measured was heart attacks, strokes and deaths.

FRAYER: The results were so conclusive that scientists called off the study early to report their findings. Johnson says this could change the way nutritionists advise high-risk patients.

JOHNSON: We have moved beyond the very low fat diet message and we know that adding healthy fats, in this case in the form of the extra virgin olive oil or the nuts, can have a beneficial effect. So the take-home message is include healthy fats in your diet.

FRAYER: Back at his tapas bar in Madrid, waiter Jose Luis Garcia delivers a heaping plate of those healthy fats, calamari fried in olive oil, to one of his regulars, 65-year-old Maria Louisa Romero(ph).

MARIA LOUISA ROMERO: (Unintelligible) because we cook with oil, a lot of fish, a lot of vegetables is what is very healthy.

FRAYER: For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

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